Israeli Ministers Hold Marathon Meetings on Possibility of PA’s Collapse

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas kisses a Palestinian flag before raising it at UN headquarters during the General Assembly in New York. September 30, 2015.Credit: Reuters

The diplomatic-security cabinet held marathon discussions over the last two days about the possibility that the Palestinian Authority will collapse and how Israel would deal with such a development, according to three sources who either attended the meetings or were briefed on them.

Several ministers argued that the PA’s collapse could serve Israel’s interests, so Israel shouldn’t try to prevent it, a senior official who attended the meeting said.

The minister’s discussion of the PA began Wednesday afternoon and continued until late at night, then resumed yesterday evening for another several hours.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened the meeting after Tuesday’s visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry failed to achieve any progress on the Palestinian front. The senior official, who asked to remain anonymous, said Netanyahu called the meeting because information had reached Jerusalem that the Palestinian Authority was planning new steps against Israel in the international arena, in light of Kerry’s failure to obtain any Israeli concessions.

One move the PA is considering, the official said, is presenting a resolution in either the UN Security Council or the General Assembly (the latter a venue where the United States lacks a veto), demanding international protection for Palestinians in “the occupied State of Palestine.” A more extreme step being considered is revoking the Palestine Liberation Organization’s 1993 decision to recognize Israel – a decision that formed the basis for the Oslo Accords.

All three sources said the possibility of the PA collapsing arose in the context of the ministers’ discussion about how Israel should deal with such steps mooted by the PA. But a senior official briefed on the meeting said the concern wasn’t that PA President Mahmoud Abbas might dismantle the authority, as that’s not something he is seriously considering. Rather, the discussion focused on the possibility that Israeli military pressure, the economic crisis and Abbas’ eroding legitimacy among Palestinians could combine to cause the PA’s collapse.

Senior Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service officers are very worried by the possibility of the PA collapsing, and warned the ministers of the consequences for both security and civilian affairs.

Nevertheless, several ministers argued that Israel might reap more benefit than harm from such a collapse, and therefore shouldn’t try to stop it from happening, said an official who attended the meeting. These ministers, whom the official declined to name, also argued that Palestinian moves against Israel, both internationally and locally, may be more harmful to Israel than the PA’s collapse.

The scenarios discussed by the diplomatic-security cabinet on Wednesday were very similar to those raised by Kerry during some of his meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah the day before. A few hours before the forum met, Kerry arrived home in Boston and warned publicly that if both sides didn’t take positive action quickly, the Israeli-Palestinian crisis was liable to spiral out of control.

Both Israeli officials who met with Kerry and American officials said he left the region deeply frustrated by both sides. Netanyahu and Abbas both doubled down on their positions and refused to take even the most minimal step to restore calm, these officials said.

Kerry and his aides were stunned that Netanyahu, who had come to Washington just two weeks ago with a package of gestures he said he was willing to offer the Palestinians, reneged on all of them.

An Israeli official listed three reasons for Netanyahu’s U-turn. First and most important was the terror attacks in Paris, which made Netanyahu think he wouldn’t come under serious international pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians. Second was the series of attacks in Israel in the days before Kerry’s visit, in which eight Israelis were killed.

Third was the heavy pressure by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who told Netanyahu that his Habayit Hayehudi party wouldn’t agree to any gestures toward the Palestinians as long as the attacks continued. Bennett also said that even if the attacks stopped, his party would oppose granting building permits to Palestinians in Area C, the part of the West Bank under full Israeli control.

Netanyahu, like he has many times in the past, told Kerry that his coalition problems prevented him from making gestures to the Palestinians. Later, Kerry met with opposition leader Isaac Herzog to find out whether the Labor Party would consider joining the coalition, but Herzog said no.

“There’s zero sign of any change in Netanyahu’s policies or approach,” Herzog said. “In this situation, there’s no chance or reason for us to join the government.”

Kerry’s meeting with Abbas was no better. Sources briefed on it said Abbas refused to take even minimal confidence-building measures like condemning stabbing attacks, or at least not voicing support for the perpetrators. Abbas kept asking what Kerry had brought him from Netanyahu, and when he realized the answer was nothing, he began threatening to turn the keys of the PA over to Israel or start new diplomatic and legal campaigns against Israel at the United Nations.

Afterward, Kerry phoned Netanyahu while en route to the airport and told him, “I’m out of ideas,” a source briefed on the conversation said.

The White House had already concluded that Netanyahu and Abbas were a lost cause, but now, Kerry’s aides are coming to the same conclusion. “Our begging and pleading isn’t helping,” one American official said. “Maybe what’s needed is simply for the situation on the ground to force the sides to take action.”